The Invasion of the iThings

by Joe Dator
Joe Dator

Blame it on the warped, sci-fried, and only slightly sadistic sector of my brain, but I think we’re being invaded.

Before you slap down your cuckoo claims on alien conspiracies or little green men who worship the moon or whatever hoodoo-voodoo, spacey-raciness crosses your mind, cool your jets. This isn’t War of the Worlds or Body Snatchers; I’m not about to hoist myself onto a pedestal and scrub your brains with the (very true) tale of how the pyramids came to be or the (also very true) gossip on Area 51 shenanigans.

No, I lament on an invasion initiated by the human-breed. On ourselves.

Bear with me; this is for the children.

I too was once a hopeful homo sapiens, wrapped up in the metallic sheen of imminent computerdom, internal epidermis calculators, and infinite virtual viability. My flip phone was the single most extraordinary device in the galaxy; it could take pictures and everything. In the seventh grade, I was a tech mogul, and my only regret was that I was unfamiliar with the glorious gleam of the inter-webs, which had this magical ability at transforming my peers into worldly individuals.

Pray patience; the point is pending.

Around the time that I mastered the art of phone-flipping, I received my first mission objective: watch TV and make sure that the mini-folk don’t kill themselves; a.k.a., babysit the neighbors. Thirteen years old and ready to whip out my patented ‘mom’ voice, I agreed to watch the little buggers from five till nine on Friday night. Just to prove that I was the stuff of babysitting legends, I packed a bag of artsy-fartsy things and a few choice narratives.

One short boy, one tall girl, and one grande boy (skinny, of course) greeted me at my neighbor’s door. They were all of the smallish species, ranging in age from four to nine. I plastered on my milk-and-cookies smile and hailed them in their native tongue of toddler. They chirped back their hellos, and then turning on their heels, sprinted up the stairs. Mother and father beamed; oh, those darling kids! They’re too shy! I’m sure they’ll warm up to you soon enough.

Soon enough, in two minutes, within the decade…I didn’t quite care, so long as I got paid. I waited for mom and pop to split in their Ford Fusion, and then bounded up the stairs.

“[Redacted]? [Redacted], where are you?” I peeked down the empty hallway. “I’ve got a build-your-own bouncy ball kit! We can throw them at the cat! Or we could read a story? Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Or maybe something more cheerful? Charlotte’s Web? Actually, come to think of it, that one’s a bit depressing as well… Or we could just go outside?”

I was met with cold, deliberate silence, and the faint squawk of a dying bird.


I catapulted through the nearest door to find the short child lying across his bed, with an iPad in hand and possessed look in his eyes. That was my first inkling of the invasion.

The floor was strewn with untouched toys; there were legos still locked in their cases, cars shiny as the day they were forged, books unbent and unloved, and Nerf guns loaded but never fired. A glass terrarium sat on the table by his unkempt bed, containing a perky, plastic palm tree and out-of-order hermit crab.

He bit his lip as another bird was flung to its death, and grumbled his frustrated, four-year old garble when it failed to strike the swine. At first my voice abandoned me, and I watched as his chubby fingers smudged the screen and his eyes whirled white with a hundred thousand pixels. That thing in his hands- it commanded him! It was even more powerful than I!

Swallowing my horror, I enquired after his pursuits, and again offered to release him into the wilds of suburbia. He oinked a non-reply, and motioned for me to close the door.

Exiled into the hallway, I extracted my flip phone from my pocket, and suddenly it didn’t seem so fanciful. A quick search of the menu revealed that I didn’t have any bird-smashing games, but I could play solitaire for three easy payments of $9.99. I wondered what it was that really rattled me- the invasion of the green-eyed monster, or the invasion of the iThings?

I was just beginning to contemplate whether or not I should call SETI (I had them on speed dial) when I heard another peculiar noise. I tentatively entered the second room, and found the tall child tucked into her bean bag chair with an iPhone pressed to her nose.

“Watcha doing?” I asked. A pink, polka-dotted iPad cozied up to a pillow pet on her bed.

She wagged her hand at me. “Come see.”

I hesitated. Seeing that the phone was firmly latched to her face, I could only assume that it was sucking all of humanity’s secrets out of her brain. But after a few suspended seconds of muted music and obscure sound effects, I crossed over to look at the screen. I was bestowed with an exciting scene of penguins creaming each other with snowballs.

“Hey, how about we go outside? There’s no snow, but we can make mud balls and mud forts…”

She rolled her eyes.

Hold up…this little tall girl was radiating sass like a flippant cosmic ray. I could handle a good serving of sauce, but something told me that this wasn’t the organic kind. I yanked the phone from her fingers and was about to chuck it out the window when a noise escaped her lips that sounded somewhere between a cat’s painful death and a hen laying an egg twice its size. It’s assumed her mind, I thought in horror. There’s no going back now. I tossed the phone into her lap amidst weepy wails of “It’s a matter of life and death!” and “I need to beat the guy!”

Suffice to say, I removed myself from the room.

Back in the hallway, I thought over what I knew about the family. To their name: an acre of clean, green grass, a basement boasting a bar and toy room, three snazzy rides, and ample devices to dazzle their kids’ minds. They were well off, but good people. How the aliens could’ve slipped past their line of sight was mind-boggling to me.

I wolfed down my apprehension, and knocked on the third door. The grande boy opened it a crack, and squinted out at me.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re on your phone playing Fruit Ninja, and much too busy to be bothered.”

He pulled the door all the way open, and I saw that his hands were empty. “No. I’m doing homework.” He pointed to his desk, where a sleek Mac was booted up on a math website.

There were other gadgets in the room as well: an iPhone charging by the bed, an iPad on the top bookshelf, an Infinity Stone beside the goldfish bowl, and a set of speakers atop the chest.   I looked into his eyes, and saw that they weren’t sewn by cobwebs. They were clear, coherent, and untainted by feathery explosions or virtual snowball crusades. And the darling dear is doing his homework! I backed out of the room, smiling sideways, and said, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

I stood in the center of the hallway, penned in by the three doors, and once again pulled out my sad flip phone. For all my purported cellular savviness, I sure was scraping the bottom of the barrel with this scrap of metal. If the iThings were parasitic aliens that sucked the attention out of children, then ol’ Flippie here was a prehistoric beetle, and the only thing it sucked out of life was fun and battery juice.

When I was younger, I didn’t even have a notion of what a computer was. Coloring books, broken dolls, and funny-looking leaves were my distractions, and lanky-limbed trees growing alongside muddy streams served as my playground. I was dependent on the weather more than anything; no rain meant free reign, and shady skies did I despise. There was no risk of an invasion when the closest thing to technology I possessed was the clunky TV in the living room.

But Short, Tall, and Grande- they would mature alongside the aliens, taking them by the hand through elementary school and becoming life long friends as college rolled around. They would know each other, inside and out, until they weren’t merely ‘possessed’ by the iThings, but one with them. Would they ever know the kind of childhood I led, where creativity was consummated in hands-on learning? Where every day was one of elbow bruises and grass stains, and games were played not with pixelated penguins, but with imaginary friends? Where instead of throwing irritable fowl at pigs, you could just go out to the farm and butcher one? Well, ok, maybe not that…

In the seventh grade, I considered myself a tech mogul. I thought I knew it all, and I prayed for the day when computers would be interpolated into brains and psionic manipulation would be a skill possessed by the masses. What I was unaware of, though, was just how distinctly the road to bionic bliss would affect people, especially those of the child-sort. Most of modern technology is necessary and resourceful and glistening with promise, and we need it; it’s a tool for studying, learning, growing, molding minds and promoting knowing…plus a little entertainment never hurt anyone.

The invasion is not in the appeal or the perception; it’s in the obsession.

And perhaps that’s why I both loved and hated my flip phone. It was stark enough that I could go for days without touching it, therefore eliminating the chance of addiction, but it also lacked the glimmer of boundless ability. We crave to contain our lives in something, so that it won’t seem as complicated. And children, above all else, crave to control something- a virtual character, a game’s outcome, a high score.

I was tossed from my thoughts when an explosion sounded from Grande’s room. “Mayday! Mayday! Gun him down, you -” What followed was a string of cusses so colorful that I could practically see the rainbow seep under his door.

Then I realized…what kind of kid does his homework on a Friday night?

© 2014 Stellular Scribe

Not Running- a short story

Sad Mountain
“Sad Mountain” by Fawaz Alolaiwat

I’m not running.

I’m not running…at least, not anymore.

I can still hear her laugh, like the tinkling of crystal bells. Her song still dances through my mind untainted, and her voice is as clear and pure as it was on the day I lost her. Every child I see on the street is her; every giggle makes me turn my head, ready to call out her name. The little boy next door’s smile stirs buried demons within me; it awakens monsters that tear through the crust that has over time come to encase my heart, and with searing claws they rake at my already battered spirit. They moan of dead beasts, long trapped away in the recesses of my mind, and cry out in a bitter agony.

I would sit in my room and stare out the window, watching as children scurried across the pavement. Their happiness churned up discarded memories, and unable to handle the asperity that the sight of them brought upon me, I’d draw the curtains and crank up the volume on the television. I ran. I always ran.

But not anymore.

I sit on the porch and watch as they play. I allow the demons to devour me, and I don’t struggle when a pearly vision bleeds into my mind. A lone swing creaks in the sweet-smelling wind. Little blue shoes with the buckles undone rest in the dirt by the tree. A distant call, a mother’s song, brushes the warm air. Then I hear a string of laughter, her laughter. I smile and push aside the branches of a bush. She’s there, where I knew she’d be, her hair snagged with crumbling, brown leaves. “Found you!” I say.

She sticks out her tongue, stained green by the popsicle she just ate, and leaps from the brambles. “You’ll never catch me alive!”

A laugh escapes from between my teeth as I watch her bolt for the house, and I see my mother standing in the back doorway, her hands planted on her hips. She yells at me for playing in the dirt, and scorns my unkempt hair. “Get in for dinner!” she says.

I pick up the blue shoes left behind in the shade and dump out the wood chips. I hear her voice again, coming from the house. She reminds me that I still haven’t caught her, and that she won’t let me rest until I do. A smile peaks on my lips as I start after her. In this moment, everything is perfect. 

Nothing ever stays perfect.

The fingers of my memory creep across the scene, and now I’m in a church. She sits beside me in the pew, her black-stockinged legs kicking at the kneeler in front of us. Her gray, cotton dress is ruffled up to her hip, and her braid has fallen apart in ribbons of frizzy hair. She looks at me with solemn eyes, and asks, “Why’re they putting Mommy in that box?”

Tears tug at the corners of my eyes, and a lump nestles in my throat. I want to stay strong for her; I want to show her that I’m brave, but I feel limp. I look away, my eyes losing their focus as I stare ahead at the droning priest at the altar. I tell her the same thing I told her ten times before. “Mommy’s dead.”

The air is stale and thick with incense, and the smoke from the candles burns my eyes. I don’t look at her reaction. I don’t offer her a comforting arm. I’m a cold statue, stony in body and mind. 

“She’s not dead,” she says to me, grabbing my sleeve. “She wants to get out, she doesn’t like it in there. It’s too dark.”

My eyes well up with tears, but my cheeks remain dry. “No,” I say. “She’s dead.”

Her voice turns sour. “No! Can’t you hear her? She wants to get out!”

I pull my arm away and grab her wrist. “She’s dead, and she’s not coming back!”

My voice rings through the church, and the pensive faces of chromatic saints look down on me with judging, glass eyes. The mourners pause in their sniffling to look at me in pity, and I know what they’re thinking. Those poor children, scarred forever. Forced to live with a mother who didn’t care, a mother who didn’t bat an eyelash before she tightened the rope.

Now she’s crying, and I can’t bare to look at her anymore. I leave her in the pew, and whisk up the middle of the aisle. Her cry reverberates in my ears, but I don’t look back. I run.

They said we’d be happy with the old couple across the country. They said we were distantly related, and that they were eager to have us. And that might’ve been so, we might’ve truly been happy there…but we never got the chance to find out.

I wake up to her screams from the bed beside mine. She flails under the thin sheets, writhing back and forth frantically. I switch on the lamp by my bed and rush to her side, peeling away the sheets tangled in her legs. She looks up at me with red eyes and a nose slick with tears.  I grab her shaking arms gently, and say, “Shh, shh…it’s all right. The nightmare’s over.”

She shakes her head, and her forehead creases. “It’s not.” Her voice is clear and mature, and I’m taken aback by her forwardness. “I am so sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your fault. I know you think it is, but it’s not. I love you.”

I don’t know what to say, and I pull away from her. I realize now that my fingers are trembling, and I tuck them under my arms. “What are you saying?” I ask.

She remains lying, but props her head up on the pillow. “I’m sorry,” she says again, and her voice quavers. “You two don’t deserve this. But I’m scared. It’s so cold.”

I’m terrified now, and I jump to my feet. The aged floorboards of the house groan as I step back on them. “I don’t understand,” I say. “What-”

“Good night.” Then she rolls over, facing her back to me, and pulls the sheets up and over her head.

My last memory of her is her laugh. 

She trails after me on the way to school, stepping on the curb one foot at a time like a gymnast on a balance beam. She doesn’t seem to remember the night before, and she jabbers on about her crabby teacher like nothing had ever happened.

I begin to cross the bridge that hangs over the river, but I stop when I see that she’s not following. “Hurry up,” I say.

Her face goes ashen, paler than the moon. She whispers to herself. “No, don’t make me.”

“We’re going to be late,” I say. “I don’t have time for this.”

Her expression switches, and her feet jerk towards the bridge. “Yes, free me! I can’t stand it any longer!” She starts to run towards me, but halts a few feet before me. “No, I don’t wanna! I’m scared!”

Annoyed, I grab her wrist. “Let’s go. School is just around the corner.”

But she jerks away from me, and grabs the bridge railing. “I tried!” she cries, her eyes brimming with tears. “I tried, but I just can’t! I’m hurting!”

“Where are you hurting?” I ask, but she shies away from my hand.

Her eyes go wide like disks, and her eyebrows arch up. “I know,” she breathes. “That does hurt…”

I’m scared now, and I look around wildly, trying to see if she’s talking to anyone. But we’re alone on a rickety bridge, with nothing but the surging creek below us and the golden leaved trees framing the sky. 

I look back at her, and my heart leaps into my mouth. She’s under the railing, and hanging off the bridge. I see her blue shoes slip on the ridge, and I lunge forward to grab her. “No!”

She looks at me with shining eyes, and the tears are gone. “Don’t you see? She’s hurting. It’s dark and cold there, and she wants to be free.”

“Who?” My voice is shrill, and I grab at her arm. “Who is she?”

She flutters her eyelids, and laughs blithely. “Mommy.”

Then she jumps. 

And my grip slips.

And she’s gone.

I open my eyes, and the little boy from next door is standing on my porch. He grins at me, his freckles stretching across his cheeks, and says, “I’ve never seen you before!”

His eyes are an eggshell blue, just like hers. A stabbing ache roots itself in my stomach, but I ignore it. I’m not sure what to say.

“My mom says you’re a grouchy, old i…intro…introvert!” He struggles over the last word, but seems very pleased with himself when he gets it out.

I can feel the demons shrinking away, and my heart lightens. For so long I have shut away my memories; for so long I have ignored the guilt suspended in my mind. I would drown out her ghostly laugh with pointless tasks, and I wasted away my life without giving each passing day a second thought. And now…I am free. I remember, and my memories are raw and cruel, and they gnaw at my spirit like a voracious beast…but at least I have come to terms with them. At least now I can breathe.

I am seventy-five years old. I have seen hell. And I have survived.

I smile at the boy, and the more I look at him the more his elated grin reminds me of hers.

And it makes me happy.

I excavated this story from the disorderly abyss that is my documents folder. It was a for-fun-thing I did last year, and boy, was it unedited… I was almost afraid to touch it for fear of it shattering beneath my cursor, but I think it came out ok in the end.  

Automaton- a short story

“There, now isn’t that remarkable!”

I gazed upon the machine cautiously through the stilted light, my eyes catching the glint of copper off its face. It smelled of oil and metal, and had eyes deader than a corpse’s. 

“It’s…” I tripped over my words, and chewed at my lip. “What is it?”

My father’s eyes were alight with glee, and his upper lip curled into a smile. “An automaton, of course! But not like the ones you see in the shops, my dear, no… Those machines can hardly count their twos and threes. This, this creation here is capable of intelligent thought!”

I looked into its cold eyes again. “Really?”

Father pinched the end of his mustache with two fingers and twirled it. “A little enthusiasm would be welcomed,” he said. “I’ve been slaving over him for months!”


“Why, yes! I call him Cephas. Marvelous, isn’t it?”

Marvelous wasn’t quite the word that came to mind. The machine was tall in stature, with exposed gears at the neck and joints, and a ridiculous top hat perched upon its head that I assumed was my father’s attempt to make it look more human. Human. I would sooner compare it with a toaster.

But my father had always wanted a son, and he was an excellent clockmaker by trade. Perhaps this would offer him some solace in the fact that he got glued to a daughter who had no interest in befriending androids. 

“Well! Let’s ignite him, shall we?” His eyes crinkled at the corners in elation, and he reached to flip a latch across its chest. It opened to reveal a small compartment with an assortment of buttons and knobs. “Would you like to do the honors, my sweet?”

I drew my lips into a thin line. “No, no, you do it.”

He pressed a red button, and at first nothing happened. Then a faint humming came from the inner mechanisms of its chest, and all at once the metal shuddered. A puff of dust escaped from the thing’s mouth, and a bluish glow bloomed in its empty eyes. I jumped back as its neck snapped to attention, and its head swiveled in its socket to behold my father and me. 

My father clapped his hands. “Ah, do you see this, Parthena? It’s extraordinary!”

I took another step back, all the while keeping my eyes on the machine. “Yes, very extraordinary…”

Its icy sockets switched to me, and I felt my insides congeal. It was looking right into me, as if observing the deepest reaches of my consciousness. That’s…not possible… It’s a machine, it can’t be sentient…

“Greetings, Cephas!” my father exclaimed, grabbing hold of its mechanical arm so forcefully that he nearly knocked the thing over. “I’m your maker!” His voice was on the verge of delirium, and his eyes wild with an enthrallment that frightened me. The automaton’s head cranked towards my father, and that only caused him to squeal in excitement. “Oh, do say something!” he said. Then to me: “He can speak, you know. Can do anything! I won’t need your help around the shop so long as I have him. Cephas, you card, don’t be shy! We’re your friends here.”

I felt a bit of bile slopping up my throat, but I swallowed it and began to turn towards the stairs. “I’ll just be going, now…”

“Don’t be such a wet blanket, Parthena. Look, I think he’s about to speak…”

I looked back, just in time to see the machine’s jaw unhinge, and a few lifeless words tumble from its copper lips: “I want.”

My father blinked rapidly, and he clutched the side of the automaton. “What? What does that mean? What do you want, my son?”

With that, I could no longer stand to be in the room. I gathered up my dragging skirts and hurried up the stairs.

Days went by, and my father only grew more attached to Cephas. He no longer worked on his clocks, but spent hour after hour fawning over the mechanical creature, and boasting to anyone who would listen about its infinite database and unparalleled abilities. I avoided the thing as often as possible, but its eyes followed me everywhere, and it always seemed to be around every corner. It was in the workshop constructing perfect clocks with perfect pendulums and perfect glass casings; it was out in the shop charming customers with its perfect articulation and perfect wit and perfect salesmanship. It was perfect in every way.

But I hated the thing. Oh, my blood curdled and my fingers clenched whenever I saw it amble up the street, carrying the basket of groceries that Father had bid it to fetch. That used to be my job. I used to be the gopher. Now all I did was sit around, listening to the oohs and ahhs of entranced window shoppers as they admired its metallic sheen and sparkling personality. For God’s sake, it didn’t even have a personality. It was a toaster with a voice box. That was it.

And then Father began to speak of constructing more of them, ones that he could sell or rent off to make a bit of extra cash. He even jested about building enough to form a mechanical theatre troupe. When I told him he was being silly, he said, “Oh, but Cephas has an exquisite singing voice, Parthena. He lullabies me to sleep every night! I can bid him to do the same for you, if you’d like…” I scoffed the notion away, but his words did make me think. If he were able to organize an entertaining ensemble of automatons, then it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to assemble an army.

My father was a brilliant man with foolish notions. And I think that more than anything, that was what drove me away.

I left because I earned a scholarship that would be idiotic to pass on at a school in the country. At least, that’s what I told everyone. I really just wanted to get away, to go to a place where machines didn’t breathe down your neck and ribbons of smoke didn’t lace the sky. My father hardly noticed when I left. He was too busy in his workshop building another friend for Cephas. I didn’t care. Not anymore.

The country was a refreshing change of scene, and I was finally able to get the stench of oil and smoke out of my clothes. For years I studied, and over time my father and his mechanical doll faded into the back of my mind. He never wrote, asking after me and my studies. He never cared.

After two years, I decided to be the better person and travel home over holiday to visit him. A small part of me was glad to be returning home, and to see him again, but a more dominant portion of my brain was afraid at what I would find when I got there. 

I boarded off the train at eleven o’ clock, the time when my father would be sending Cephas to prepare his lunch. My boots stabbed the cobblestone road as I headed up the street to his clockwork shop, and my mind reeled in anticipation. Would he have an army of automatons, as I feared? Or perhaps that theatre troupe he wanted so badly worked out, and he was on tour with a circus three countries over. 

I rounded the corner, and stopped dead in my tracks. The windows to the shop were boarded up, and the scrawling script that once read “Orville’s Clockwork Emporium” was faded and missing letters. At first I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything…but stare and fret that my greatest fears were realized. He was dead. He was dead or lying in a ditch somewhere, dying.

No! I didn’t know that! My heart leapt into my mouth in a sudden strike of adrenaline, and I rushed over to a man who was sweeping his front porch. “Sir!” My voice was leadened with dread. “Excuse me, but do you know what happened to that clock shop?”

He looked at me with tired eyes, and said, “What clock shop?”

Surely, he can’t be genuine… “The clock shop across the road. Right there. With the boarded windows. I’m pointing to it?” That last sentence ended in a sort of question, because the man’s eyes offered no reassurance or familiarity.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and not once has there been a clock shop across the road.”

“No,” I breathed. “You’re lying. That’s not possible. My father worked there! He had an automaton!” I was practically shouting now, my voice harried and distant. “You must remember!”

The man gave me a leery glare, and shrunk back onto his doorstep. “I’ve already said, there is no such place!”

“No!” I spun away from him, and hurried back to my father’s abandoned shop to see if I could find an opening to peek through the windows. No such luck. The door was barred as well, and I was beginning to give in to defeat when I remembered- there was a back way. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and ran off down the alleyway, coming around to the back of the shop, where the overflowing rubbish pails filled with rusted cogs and springs gathered in stinking heaps. I flew to the back door, and was about to toy with the knob when I heard a cranking, followed by, “I want…”

My head whisked around, and there, lying against the fence, was Cephas. He was rusted beyond repair, and one of his arms lay in pieces a meter away from him. His cog springs coiled out at random, and the gears around his jaw made an incessant ticking noise as they jammed together. But still, his eyes burned with a blue fire, and he looked up at me. “I want…”

“Where’s my father?” I demanded.

“He…he…he-he-he-he-heheheheheheeeee…” Cephas’ head began to jerk, and the light in his eyes blinked rapidly as he malfunctioned. I gave him a good kick in the side, and he snapped out of it.

“My father? What did you do to him?”

“My maker…” His voice was deeper than usual, and slurred like a drunkard’s. “…wanted to re-re-replace me…”

“What are you talking about?”

“He di-didn’t need me anymore. He didn’t want Ce-ce-cephas.”

“What did you do?”

“He wanted to re-replace m-me. Cephas wouldn’t let th-that happen.”

My heart sunk in understanding. “You did away with him.”

“Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. Th-the beast lives on w-within the shop. N-ne-never go in. Cephas m-made sure no one ever g-goes in.”

“What beast? What do you mean?”

Cephas cocked his head, and a whistle squealed in his joints. “Cephas was t-too la-la-late.  The automaton-ton-ton that Maker made is dange-danger-dange-”

“Dangerous?” The world around me went still, and it was only the machine. My father was gone…and it was this monster’s fault. But if it had stopped my father from bringing something even worse and more unnatural into the world…then I didn’t know what to think.

“Do not go in. No one go in. No one gooooo…” His voice become heavy and sloppy, and I knelt down beside him on the litter strewn ground. 

“I want…” he garbled.

“I never liked you,” I said. “You replaced me.”

Then I flipped the latch on its chest, pressed the black button, and watched as its eyes died.

“Automaton” by Kazuhiko Nakamura

I’m a huge steampunk fan, and couldn’t help myself with this one! I wrote it all in one go, too, so there’s bound to be a few typos here and there. 

Memories- a short story

These memories aren’t mine.

I first remembered my sister three weeks ago, while sitting in my cubicle and moping over a mug of coffee. It came like a musty memory, sealed away in the crypt of my mind and only just resurfacing. I saw her toothy smile in my coffee, swirling in the black liquid with the hint of a laugh playing off it. Then I felt her grab my arm, yelling at me to not walk so slow, and I saw her eyes shine as she told me that she was engaged.

I don’t have a sister.

These ghosts, these whispers of a past long slipped between fingers — they’re not mine. Not my ghosts. And I don’t know why I remember them.

I’m a simple person; I live alone, have a cat, and I drink more coffee than I probably should. I have a mother in Florida who struggles to remember my name, and a father buried with the rest of my family in Virginia. I have no siblings, no children, no husband, no friends…so when I remembered my sister, a person who never existed, naturally I was alarmed.

At the time I brushed it off as a trick of the mind, a result of working on only three hours of sleep. I laughed at myself that night as I heated up instant noodles. Me? Have a sister? Sure, as a girl I had always begged my parents for a little sibling I could play with, but I think that after I was born they swore off the prospect of having more children. I never had a sister, and I was being delusional.

That was until I remembered my husband. I heard his voice first, a song in the back of my mind, and he was laughing, laughing at me. I felt a blush coming on, and I told him to quit teasing. He only laughed again, and then I saw his wallet lying on the counter, that pitiful, falling-apart piece of leather that he insisted on using despite me buying him newer, more expensive ones.

But I was never married. I never had a husband.

The next day I remembered my childhood friend, a long and lanky girl with buckteeth that were every dentist’s nightmare. I remembered growing up beside her, and I remembered her chasing me down the rows of chairs after high school graduation, her gown billowing and her cap flying out behind her. I remembered her crying as we parted for college, her cheeks smudged and black from running make-up. As I stood in the back of the bus on the way to work, I could still hear her crying.

Slowly, these memories took over my life.

They came in flashes, each more vibrant and horrifying than the last. I would be in a conference meeting and suddenly my daughter’s voice would screech out, “Mommy!” and I’d jump to my feet, calling out a name that I didn’t even know I knew. “Angie!”

I’d wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning, remembering how I forgot to tell my husband goodbye, how I forgot to apologize. But apologize for what? I didn’t know.

It got to the point where the memories consumed my life, and I’d stay in my room, weeping and laughing and moaning and wondering and weeping some more. I saw places, too. A cottage nestled in a cliff by the sea, with dogs running wild on the beach. A high rise hotel in the city, with silver walls and a hundred post-it sized windows. A vacation, a family portrait, in front of Niagara Falls, the faces of my family nipped by wind and wet from spraying water. No, not my family. They weren’t my family.

Or were they?

I didn’t go to work. The phone rang, but I didn’t answer it. I became absorbed by these memories, by this world, by these people. I replayed images in my head. I re-experienced the moment when my husband and I met. I watched as my sister walked down the aisle, her gown shimmering with sequins that I helped her sew in. I relived the birth of my daughter. I remembered watching her grow up.

I became attached. I became obsessed.

And I questioned what was real.

I wanted this family, these shining people with their beaming smiles and complete lives. I wanted to feel their love again, or for the first time, or for real. Maybe they were my true family; maybe I was trapped in a bad dream, or lying comatose in a hospital somewhere. Or maybe it was from an alternate world, a universe where I was happy, where I had what I wanted. Or maybe it was what could have been, the life I could have lived if I had done something differently, been someone else.

I didn’t know anything…not anymore.

That weekend I sat on the edge of my bed, staring out the window on the muddled street below, watching as cars creeped along the roads like slugs and people scampered about like roaches. This life, this world…what even was it? What was the point of this monotonous routine, this rigid schedule of droning events, when I could have this other life? I had always considered myself sub-par, not entirely useless but mediocre enough to lead a dreary existence. These memories brought an escape, they offered an alternative that I could’ve never imagined, a world where I had what I wanted, one where I had friends and got married and had a child and loved a sister.

But why? Why me? Why now? And what for?

My questions are snakes that worm through my mind, eating away at every sense I thought I possessed. Now I’m left with nothing but bare instinct, and I shrink away into my mind, fitting my thoughts with armor and blocking out the world. I live in the memories now; they are everything.

And I become them.

Then I remember the car crash. It’s an explosion of metal and sound, a fireworks display of blood and blaze. I don’t remember the impact, but I remember the pain. And then I remember the black.

It’s a warm sort of blackness, thick and wet and suffocating, and as I remember I close my eyes. For so long the black has just been there — a dull and lonely piece of oblivion that I sit in, blind and deaf. Then I remember my dreary life, the life of budget meetings and tasteless coffee and watching reality television. The two converge, and the life I abhor becomes the swallowing black. A bleak hole of dark, pointless nothingness.

The voices start out as soft, spindly wisps, brushing against me like feathery tendrils. Voices, calling out to me. Calling a name that must be mine. They build up, pressing in around me and looming high over in staggering towers. Then all at once, they tumble, and I’m buried in noise. Weeping, calling, singing, laughing. The voices of my family, my family from a dream. And ringing clear over all the others is my sister’s voice. “Wake up.”

The black melds into gray, and the gray breaks into a million shades. A million shades that brighten and lighten and whiten…

“Wake up.” A voice choked by tears.

I open my eyes.

I’m in a room with white, speckled walls, lying on a frameless bed with tubes snaking up my limbs and needles sticking out of my skin. My sister’s voice cracks in a flood of emotion, and she begins to sob, clutching my arm with rigid fingers. I blink back the crust that rims my eyes and open my peeling lips. I try to speak, but my throat is tight and my voice a muffled croak. She blubbers nonsensically, her tears gathering at her chin and dripping off onto the covers.

My sister…I don’t have a sister…

But I do. I know I do, because here she is, with her gleaming eyes and toothy grin, so real and alive and here.

She calls out to someone, and a doctor arrives, his pink lips parted as he mutters, “Not possible…”

My sister’s grip tightens over my fingers, and she says something about my husband and daughter. Then I know…this is real. This is more real than anything.

They told me that after the delivery truck plowed into my mini-van, the doctors had little hope for me. They gave my family three months, and they said that by the end of it if I hadn’t woken up, I never would.

It has been two years.

I often think back on that drab and depressing life I lived in my mind. I think back on it, and I’m happy that it wasn’t mine. When I feel a stab of morose for my dementia-ensnared mother, I remind myself that she was a figment of my comatose mind. She wasn’t real.

But then I wonder…is this life real?

I live with the fear that I’ll wake up one day in that bleak apartment, with a hundred missed calls and an endless list of unread emails. I try not to think about the unpaid bills and my unfed cat. Because this life, with my whole family and close friends, is the one I want to live. It is the real one.

But what if it’s not?

Broken- a short story

I could’ve said no to the old man, the time-worn sailor with withered skin that hung loosely on his cheeks, and wispy, salt-spun hair that created a snarled halo around his head.  I could’ve turned the other way, and gone on without ever knowing what approaching him would mean.  I could’ve…but I didn’t.

He sat on the edge of the dock, swinging his legs over the peaking waves, sucking on a hastily wrapped cigar.  I was a penniless and broken wanderer, with nowhere to go and no one to go to.  I watched him kick at the waves from my spot on the beach.

The moan of a fog horn penetrated the early morning quiet as I scaled the dunes.  It was a forlorn sound, the call of a lonely, bygone drifter…a sound I recognized all too well.  Salty wind whipped around my neck and stung my cheeks, and my hair was sent dancing out behind me.  Before me rose black arches of murky water.  Bleeding fingers of foam branched out from the clashing waves, the remnants of its eternal struggle.  The black sands beneath my feet shifted with the wind, glistening like hot coals.

The old man stood, tapped out his cigar into the sea, and stretched out his ancient bones.  He turned to his boat, a nicked and battered old beast that strained against the ropes keeping it tied to the post.  I watched him walk up the dock, and an inexplicable emptiness sunk within me.  I wanted to cry out, “No, don’t go!”, but I didn’t.

Then he called out to me.  His voice was warped by the sound of the surf, but I knew he was calling to me.  

My bare, calloused feet adhered to the spot, and I strained my ear towards the dock.  

Without turning to look at me, he shouted out again, louder.  “Well, what’re ye doin’?  Get yer britches up here!”

I was confused, but I crossed the beach and stepped onto the dock for curiosity’s sake.  He turned, revealed a mouth full of bronze teeth, and said, “Storm’s settin’ in the east.  If we want to beat it, we best be ridin’ the waves before dark.”  He clapped a hand laced with blue veins on my shoulder, and clambered over the dock and into the boat.  I opened my mouth in question, but he spoke over me.  “Are ye comin’ or not?”

But where?  I tilted my head back to look at the empty beach.  Past the rolling dunes and bowing grasses was nothing for me.  What life I once had was gone.  I had used up all my second chances; I’d drunk any money into the gutters.  My clothes were tattered rags hanging off my knobby shoulders, and I had nowhere to call home.

So I swung my leg over the side of the boat.  “Yes.”

A crooked grin etched across his face.  “We’re off on an adventure, Sullivan!”

I didn’t know who Sullivan was.

We set off on the bucking waves, heading directly towards the swirl of black clouds and white water on the horizon.  All the while the old man called me Sullivan.

With his cigar dangling in his fingers and one hand on the mast, he talked about my mother, an elegant ex-noble woman with hair like a thousand chalky icicles.  He told me how I had her nose, and that my spidery fingers reminded him of how beautifully she played the harpsichord.  He chortled as he managed the sail, and reminded me about the time when I was fifteen, and I stowed away in the neighbor’s carriage to the market.  I had wanted to see a girl, he said, a pretty one; she worked at the bakery with her father, and made my favorite kind of sweet rolls.  Her father caught me with her in the closet, he said, and he chased me out of the marketplace, threatening to bash my brains in with a rolling pin.  My mother was so angry at me that she locked me in the cellar for a week, but she was even more furious with the baker.  In her exasperation, she boycotted his bakery until a guard escorted her out of the village.

As the waves dipped and rose and the wind picked up, he talked about my uncle, a husky naval officer who shared my sense of ambition.  His eyes glinted with pride as he told me about how his son earned his medals.  “Dove in after a comrade durin’ a frightful raid,” he said, his colorless lips stretching as he recounted the memory.  “Saved the man’s blessed life.  Would’ve drowned if hadn’t have been for yer uncle.”

A smattering of icy rain drops diced my skin, and he brought me below deck, where we feasted on stale bread and stinking cheese as the boat lurched and groaned.  He asked after my sister, and without thinking, I said she was fine.  “Well, I ‘spected as much!” he said, taking a swig of ale.  The drink slopped onto the front of his rough-spun shirt when a monstrous wave rocked the boat, but he didn’t seem to mind.  “What with her bein’ married to that duke!  Must have gold spillin’ out of her ears, I always say.”  He offered me his canteen, and when I refused, he waved it in my face.  “Oh, don’t be that way!  I never knew ye to refuse a drink, Sullivan.”

So I drank from the canteen, even though my whiskey sodden stomach frothed at the bitter taste.  

That night, the howling wind lashed against the boat, hissing through the cracks in the ceiling, and the churning waters boiled and belched around us as we slept in our cots.  I drifted into a shaky slumber, but was awoken when I heard whimpers coming from across the cabin.

He was trembling in his cot, clutching to his chest a ceramic vase with swirling shades of blue and green.  I asked him if he was alright, and he looked up at me with a sagging brow.  “She was the prettiest gem ye ever did see,” he said in a thick voice.  His arms tightened around the vase.  “Never did no wrong, had the heart of a doe…but they took her.  They took her from me.”  His eyes shone with a buried melancholiness in the light of the swinging lantern, and his face contorted with the shifting shadows.  “She always wanted to sail ‘round the world, to see all there was to see.  So I take her with me, so she can see with my eyes.”

He planted a light kiss on the urn, and hid it away under his cot.  Then he fell asleep.

The next morning, the storm still raged, and the rain had turned to hard beads of ice.

He told me stories about when I was a child and he’d take me out on the sea in his row boat.  He chortled as he told me about the time I fell into shark-infested waters to go after a fishing line, and he had to dive in after me.  “Scared ye skinny, it did,” he said, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes creasing.  “Ye swore off swimmin’ from that moment on, but yer a sailor’s boy at heart…I knew ye’d never truly give it up.”

He nearly choked on his cigar when he retold the time when my sister and I hid under the banquet table during a family feast and went about tickling the feet of each and every guest.  Smoke billowed up around us, hanging near the ceiling like a hazy smog.  “Yer uncle threatened to tan yer hides when ye got ‘round to his feet!  Said he’d feed yer liver to the goats when he caught ye!  Yer poor sister; she was scared stiff.  Cried for a good hour straight, but was as plump as a peach at the end of it all.”

That night I found him on the deck, braced against the wind and rain, leaning into the torrents with his eyes closed.  His clothes clung to him, and his beard was stippled with rain drops.  I rubbed the sides of my arms and hunched against the downpour, calling out to him.  My voice was lost amidst the shrieking gusts and grumbling thunder.

He blinked back the sheets of rain as he looked at me, and my heart sunk when I saw his lips wilt.  I approached him, and he said in a soft, broken voice, “It was a storm like this that did it for him.  The night before a battle, too..and the sea devoured him.”  He stared out at the angry, black water wistfully.  “Took his whole crew.  Swallowed them up like wee minnows.”

I took his shaking arm and led him below deck, where he met the warm embrace of sleep.

The next day dawned with the winking sun, and we spent the morning on the deck, warming our icy feet and drinking from his canteen.  

He told me how much he had missed me.  How lonely he’d been without my sister and me, how he prayed every day that we’d show up at his doorstep or send a letter or at least attempt some contact.  And it was true; his face would bloom into a metallic smile when he’d see me emerge from the cabin, and he always gave me the larger portion of bread and cheese.

I felt like a monster.  I was a fraud.

On the fifth day, as the sun melted into the sea, he approached me on the deck.

“Yer not Sullivan, are ye?”

My heart dropped into my stomach, and I blinked up at him with sore eyes.  “No.”

He smiled sadly, turned, and without saying a word, disappeared into the cabin below.

The next morning I woke to an empty boat.  The urn beneath his bed was gone.

I wished I had never said yes.